Tag Archives: Prayer

How Distracted I Was From God (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 2)

19 Apr

Image result for distracted by screens

On January 1st, I started a sabbatical daily log.  On that day I wrote three paragraphs about what was happening in the life of the Kime Family, and mixed in there were these five words:

“I deactivated my Facebook account.”

For those of you who use Facebook, deactivating your account might feel like a big deal.  Especially if you use it a lot, like I did.

For those of you who don’t have Facebook, or rarely use it, you might be thinking, “no big deal.”

I urge you all to stay with me here.  Because there is more to the story.  The next part of the story happened this week.

I was at the pet store this week.  Buying dog food.  Row after row of choices…for my dog.  When we got him, he had been at the Humane League because his previous owners couldn’t care for him.  He was sick from drinking pond water on their property.  So the Humane League put him on special dog food for “Sensitive Digestion”.  In other words, my dog is a vegetarian, and there is dog food for that.

No surprise, though.  That is just like nearly any store, for nearly any product; we live in a society with so many choices.

We have been trained up from birth to be consumers.  We have been told by our society that we should have a lot of choices, that we should get to pick between 50 kinds of chips, or cars, or anything.  And so we have grown up under the influence of Consumerism, what Webster’s defines as “the theory that a greater progressive consumption of goods is beneficial.”

This applies to all of us: we are consumers in a consumerist society. We want our choices, we want to buy things, and when we use them up, we want more and better things.  Our approach to media is no different: we consume media.

We live in a media-soaked world.  I’m not just talking about social media, but also television, radio (especially talk radio), podcasts, sports, movies, publishing, music, and advertising.  Think about how much media you are exposed to in one day’s time.  Seriously, count it up.  How many hours of media do you consume every day?

In my own family, there can be some sort of screen/media, whether it is social media, Xbox, TV shows, Netflix, podcast, playing nearly all waking hours. There are times when we are watching TV on one big screen, working on our laptops with smaller screens, and checking our phones at the same time!

So when I think about the fact that I deactivated my Facebook account on January 1st, it is curious to me that in my sabbatical journal, all I said was those five words, “I deactivated my Facebook account.”

Why is that curious?  Because at the time, it felt like a bigger deal.  I thought there would be sirens or explosions or something.  But there was nothing.  I worried it would negatively affect my life.  But as far as I can tell, not having Facebook in my life, has not affected me negatively at all.  That surprised me.

Why?  Well, I had spent a lot of time on Facebook over the years.  I started in 2008, I think.  Over ten years, all the hours and hours reading posts, liking, sharing, and commenting.  Being in the know.  Posting, wanting people to like my posts, to share my posts.  Checking.  Updating.  Checking again.

Simply put, Facebook was a big part of my life.

That’s why deactivating it felt emotional.  Like I was cutting off something.  I would no longer be in the know.  But I had a sense that I needed to do this for sabbatical, so I did it.

I have been off Facebook for three and a half months, and I don’t think I’m going back.  Yeah, I miss out on things.  But if there is something important, Michelle lets me know. Just last week she told me about friends expecting a baby! She found out on Facebook. But since I deactivated my account, there have been surprisingly few important things that I missed. Instead I feel free.  More on that later in this post.

I feel free from Facebook, but there is more consumerism in my life than just Facebook.

As I looked over my sabbatical daily log, I found another trend. Last week I told you how the first trend in my sabbatical was the month of January as filled with comments about stress and anxiety.  The second thing that filled that first month was commentary about distraction.

I realized that I was a consumer of distraction.  Social media was only one way I was distracted.  How about you?  Are you a consumer of distraction?  And distraction from what?

A few days after I deactivated my Facebook account, I wrote this:

“I think right now, at this early phase of the sabbatical, I am realizing, painfully, how much distraction I have had in my life.  My life has been drowning in distraction. So as I think about sabbatical, what I have found thus far, in the brief moments I have removed distraction, is that I am alone with myself. And I can’t say that I like it.”

In those early days and weeks of sabbatical, once I had cleared away some distraction in my life, guess what I found?  I found a person with anxiety, a bit too cranky, a person looking for a distraction when I really needed to just be present for my family, or be alone with myself and my God.  All that anxiety I talked about last week?  I would use social media, TV, and phone games to try to distract myself from the anxiety.

I was surprised to learn that social media might have made it worse!

One report in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first nationally representative study exploring the link between social media use and depression. It looked at close to 2,000 people.

Each participant took an established depression assessment tool and answered questionnaires on social media use. This included the 11 most used platforms at the time: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Vine.

You know what the study found? The more time someone uses social media, the more likely that person is to be depressed.

Another study said that “all social media platforms use something called intermittent variable rewards.

“Imagine a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable means you might win, or you might not. In the same way, you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you’ve won.

“What you are winning on social media?  A new follower, a comment, someone liking what you posted.  And what happens, the researchers found, is that you become more discouraged and depressed when people don’t give you the likes.  Just like slot machines, when it comes to getting rewards out of social media, you often lose more than you win.”

So, for me, what started out as a good way to connect with the kids in the youth group (that’s when I activated and started my FB account, when we were youth pastors here and interacting with the kids in youth group), became too much of a regular part of my day and world. I could scroll through the news feed endlessly. To justify that use of time, I would say that I was I was learning about how things are going with people.  But as I look back on it, I was mostly distracted.

I have no doubt that social media, screen time, talk radio, reading fiction books, or whatever is a distraction for you, is not all bad.  But it can become a major distraction.  What is a healthy balance to use of media?

That is a question each person needs to answer for themselves.  And it starts with simply admitting that you can be distracted.  For me, it was a battle in my mind.  I didn’t want to admit that I was so distracted by social media and phone games.

Ask yourself this: how distracted are you? If you are spending more time watching TV than you do with your family or with God, then perhaps that is a yellow flag for you.  Think about how much time you read books, listen to talk radio, watch movies and Netflix.  Are you giving loads of time to those things, but little to God?  That might be a yellow flag to investigate.

When we do a time study of our lives, will we find that we have been distracted from spending time with God and from spending time with the important people in our lives?

We are consumers who can very readily seek to satisfy the desires of our hearts, our longings, our need for satisfaction through distractions like social media, through sports, through television, through phone games, and we will find that those outlets do not satisfy.  There is one place to find the satisfaction we crave: in the presence of the Lord.

Do you ever feel that desire to be in the presence of the Lord, but it seems impossible or irrational? If we hear ourselves saying, or if we think to ourselves, that we feel distant from God, or that we don’t hear God speak, is it because we are so distracted?

During sabbatical, I read the book Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom, and here is a quote that hit me between the eyes, “God could complain about us a great deal more than we about him.  We complain that he does not make himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door, and we answer, “I am busy, I am sorry.” Or we do not answer at all because we do not hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain about the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than he ever is.”

When I thought about my life, I knew Bloom was describing me.  The way I treated God would have been a relationship-killer if it was a human.  Imagine that was how you treated your spouse, or your best friend.  Imagine you gave them only 5, 10, or 15 minutes each day, and during that short time, all you did was spout off a list of things you wanted them to do.  When you were done with your list, you said goodbye, and you didn’t talk with them again until you read a new list again the next day, and the next, and the next.  During any of these brief daily meetings you did not ask how they were doing, or listen to what they had to say.  How would that work out for your relationship?  It will kill that relationship.  And yet, Bloom says, that is how we can treat God, and have the gall to blame him for not talking to us.  I don’t know if that describes you. It sure did me.

But hear this amazing good news: Because of what Jesus did, through his death and resurrection, we can have access to God our father.  The God of the universe wants to be with us!  Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden walking and talking with God.  Think of the Prodigal Son returning home and his father wrapping his arms around his son in a huge welcoming hug.  These are pictures of what God wants.  And we can avail ourselves of that. We can spend time with him!

In Hebrews we read that Jesus is our great high priest who opened the door for us to have access to God.  That is good news!

In James we read “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” That is good news!

What do you need to do about the distraction in your life?  What do you need to do to spend time in God’s presence?  I invite you to take action.  For me, Facebook had to go.  Games on my phone had to go.  More distraction still might need to go.  I had to learn about listening prayer, and I had to open up space in my life to make room for it.

Another article I found described a recent experiment where people voluntarily opened space in their lives. “The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.

Conclusion: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.”

The author then shared numerous examples of how people’s lives, freed from distraction, improved:

–> An engineer realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).

–> A writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.

–>  A retired stockbroker began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.

–> A PhD candidate described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”

–> A government worker replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the print edition of a newspaper. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.

Look at the amazing thing that happened when people removed distraction, and opened space in their lives!  Imagine what could happen if we do the same for God?

Maybe you’re not a social media person, will consider a break from TV?  Author Tim Willard gives the following advice:

First, you must be devoted to getting off your couch and turning the TV off. That’s step one. Stop trolling social media for people talking about the next new great show, ranting about how much they hate basically everything they don’t agree with.

It’s all digital noise, literally. Then shut off your TV for a year. See how that grabs you. One thing I switched up, I watercolor paint with my daughters every single night.

“But Tim, I don’t paint.” Excellent! Neither do I! Been afraid to my whole life. So, I got some good paints, good brushes, good paper, and I’m learning. I’ve missed maybe four days since the first of the year. The girls love it. We play classical music, light some incense, and laugh and compare paintings.

It’s the best parenting move I’ve done yet, I think.

I don’t watch television as it is. But this year, I’m not watching any programming. I stopped watching news channels and ordered a paper. It’s tough, and I’ve had to sacrifice, but it’s been so worth it. Ask my daughters.

Get some ideas, get devoted, and start doing things with real people, with your real hands. Make, create, mess up. It’s quite liberating.

Second, Willard says, Get radical and don’t look at your phone as soon as you roll out of bed. Let your first thirty minutes be making tea or coffee and reading something, like, I don’t know, a real Bible, or devotional, or something inspiring. Perhaps usually something by King David or that murderous chap, Paul.

I guarantee that if you attempt this, it will begin to rewire your brain. It will change your rhythm. And you’ll fight it at first. You’ll think you need to check the weather, or just hold your phone like “my precious.” But you don’t. Just be alive. Walk outside. And breathe deep the real analog world.

Third, Take a walk at lunch, and listen. What do you hear? Probably that’s the sounds of God rolling into your ears.

Fourth, listen to music.  Something quiet. Something that ministers to your frazzled spirit. I listen to Bach while I’m grabbing something to read. But most mornings, it’s just me, my tea, my Moleskine and the quiet blue morning.

You should read Tim’s whole article. There’s much more great advice.

What is one way you can remove distraction in your life today?  Then, and this is the exciting part, how will you use your freedom?  Be creative! Include God!

My life with anxiety and panic (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 1)

13 Apr

Image result for sabbatical

A week before my sabbatical began, we went to see Star Wars.  It has become a family tradition these past three years.  My dad’s birthday is December 29th, and so he takes my brother, sister, me and our kids to see the movie together.  There were 14-15 of us this year!  I love being with my family, and I was so excited for the movie.  I love Star Wars.  Finally we were going to learn more about Luke Skywalker, and the movie was directed by a guy whose previous work I really like.  It was going to be great.

Except that it didn’t turn out great.  I’m not referring to the movie.  The movie was awesome.  I’m talking about me.  Halfway through the movie, sitting between my dad and sister, I started feeling feverish, shaking and sweating profusely.  I wondered to myself if my dad and sister could notice.  I really hoped they did not notice.  I was dripping sweat, feeling like I could vomit.  I didn’t want them to know.

After 10-15 minutes of this, I got up and walked out to use the restroom, wipe my face, and get a drink.  It helped, but back in my seat, I started shaking and sweating again, and couldn’t focus on the movie. I closed my eyes and tried breathing slowly.  I had grabbed some paper towels in the bathroom, so that helped with the sweating.  I don’t think I fully stopped shaking until hours later at home.

Was it the flu?  A fever?  Nope.

It was anxiety, panic.  Along with the physical symptoms I described, there was a swirling spiral of negative thoughts:  “Something is deeply wrong with me.  Am I about to have a heart attack?  Is this it? Am I going to die?”

If you’re thinking, “What in the world is he talking about?,” let me explain.  I am telling you that I struggle with anxiety and stress, and sometimes it results in panic attacks.  I have mentioned it only the slightest bit over the last few years.  Just a hint in a sermon or two.  But today I am telling the whole story.  Anxiety has been a very real part of my life since the summer of 2015. I’m telling you about it today because anxiety was the defining feature of my first month of sabbatical. I felt it was time to talk about it.

It is one of those parts of life that I am never quite sure if and when and how to talk about it.  It’s deeply personal, and Michelle and I have had to give a lot of thought and prayer into when would be the right time.  From the beginning of my struggle in 2015 I made our church leaders aware, as well as some close friends and long-term confidantes.  But quite frankly we weren’t sure how to talk about it in a public way because my anxiety stems from my role as pastor.  I don’t want to come across as accusatory to the church.  I also don’t want to come across as trying to start a pity party or a “poor me” article.  Michelle and I knew what we signed up for.  Pastoral ministry is fraught with intense situations, and often ones in which the pastor and his family are in the cross-hairs. I found the following stats:

  • 75% of pastors report being extremely or highly stressed.
  • 90% are fatigued and worn out every week
  • 50% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner every month
  • 80% will not be in ministry after 10 years
  • 70% are constantly fighting depression

We also get to experience many joys in being a pastor, pastor’s wife, and pastoral family.  It is a unique role, where you are uniquely involved in people’s lives.  The joy, the happiness, and brokenness, the pain.  All of it.

So in order to avoid coming across as accusatory or like I wanted a pity party, we felt it best not to share publicly.  Until now.  We decided that now is the time to share this for a few reasons. First, I hope I have communicated clearly enough that you already know that I am not perfect, but we felt it was time for you to know this particular struggle. Pastors are people too. Second, for those of you who also struggle with mental illness, with stress, anxiety, depression, and the like, we want you to know that there is hope!

So let’s go back a few years.  Really I need to go back a lot further than that.  Anxiousness and worry is a bit of a family trait.  I come by it somewhat genetically, and I’ve always, from a little child, had struggles with worrying, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and such.  If a relationship in my life was not going well, I took it hard.  In the first half of 2015 there were multiple very difficult multiple-year situations in the church that came to a head.  Our Leadership Team handled them with grace and truth and was amazing, and by June 2015 those situations were resolved.

Then there was the trip to Kenya, which was wonderful.  But as leader, I carried the weight of responsibility, and nearing the end of the trip, as we rode in the bus from Kijabe where Lamar & Janice live and work, headed to the capital city of Nairobi, I had a brief and less intense attack.  I had no idea what was going on, and figured it was motion sickness, or something with altitude change.

In the two weeks after the Kenya trip, I spent loads of time and energy trying to complete all the loan paperwork to get our eldest son money to go to college, another loan for a laptop, and my stress levels had only increased.  One morning, after working out, I dropped our middle son off at soccer practice, and started having pains in my chest.

That did me in.  Pretty much from that day mid-August 2015 for the following two months, I went through a nonstop stress-induced agony.  I couldn’t stop shaking, and I had tightness and pain in my chest.  The chest pains scared me, and the fear kicked off even more anxiety.  It was a vicious cycle.  I saw my doctor, and he ordered tests.  A plethora of medical tests all came up clear.  My doctor also prescribed Xanax, and it was a bit helpful, but the anxiety continued.

After a few weeks, my doc suggested a maintenance med for anxiety, Lexapro.  I started on it, and initially things got worse.  Lexapro caused was a weird burning sensation in my thigh.  I couldn’t sleep for the better part of three nights.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life.  I called the doc in a panic. He said press on, my body was just get used to the medication.  I had started counseling with my seminary prof, and I’ll never forget that first session when I was a mess, crying in his office.

But slowly my body got used to the Lexapro, and little by little, week by week, my anxiety subsided.  I could sleep again.  From time to time the pains continued, and they would get me scared.  I learned to fight those fears.  My heart was fine. The medical tests proved I was fine.  I was just stressed out.  Very stressed out.  And that wasn’t good.

So I continued counseling which was amazing. I learned so much.  I went back to working out after taking a month off.  I started reading books my counselor recommended to learn coping techniques.

Over the next 18 months I improved enough that in the Spring of 2017 I saw my doc again, and we agreed that I could go off Lexapro.  I started doing a gradual draw-down, and by summer I finished taking medication.  But really, while on the meds I had hardly any side effects.  So I want you to hear me clearly on this: for those struggling with mental illness, meds can be a lifesaver.  They were for me, and I would go back on them if needed.

Back to December 2017 at Penn Cinema, watching Star Wars.  That panic attack was a bit of shocker.  It wasn’t the first.  I’ve had a handful of them.  Though it was the strongest one since the initial instances in the summer of 2015.  I doubt it will be the last one.  I’ve learned I can’t totally predict when I will have an anxiety attack. And yet, that is not totally true. If I’m willing to give it some thought, I can read the signs.  For example, in the last month before sabbatical, I had a number of stressors.  Prep for sabbatical was the big one.  I wanted sabbatical to go really well for Faith Church.  So I was nervous about going on sabbatical.  That was on top of the regular, day in and day stressors of what being a pastor entails.

Take the intensity of Star Wars, combined with my excitement about it, laid on top of those work stressors, and there you have the warning signs.  That said, it doesn’t fully make sense to me why an anxiety attack would hit right then.  And it makes me angry because it ruined the movie.   But, one thing I have learned is that when the anxiety comes out it is rarely about what is actually happening when it appears. It has been building, and I have not been pausing and working through stress as it occurs, and then it just erupts. My body is saying to me “enough!”

A few days after the movie, sabbatical started. As I read through my sabbatical journal this in preparation for this sermon, I was blown away by how much I mentioned stress and anxiety throughout the month of January.  If you thought that I went on sabbatical January 1st and was able to have a sigh of relief and peace, you were wrong.  My stress and anxiety got worse when sabbatical started.

Here is what I wrote on January 14th: “I have no reason to feel anxiety, stress, shaking, nervousness.  And yet it is there.  I don’t know what it is like for a person going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.  But I’ve seen the dramatic depictions on TV or movies, and I’ve read accounts in books.  No doubt those are different kinds of withdrawal than what I am experiencing.  But I feel something similar.”

I didn’t have another panic attack during those first two weeks, but I had a heightened level of anxiety and stress, a shakiness and nervousness that lingered pretty much the whole time.  And then something eye-opening happened.

We had our small group on Friday January 12.  I felt anxiety most of the day Friday, but as our friends walked in the house, and we sat around our table, the anxiety and tightness in my chest and arm all but dissipated.  Inwardly I recognized it right away and thought, “Woah…what just happened?” You might think it was good that I found peace, and it was.  But to have two straight weeks of stress and anxiousness, and then in a matter of minutes have it be gone?  It was weird.  What was happening to me?

The thought came to mind that in those first few weeks of sabbatical I had been experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.  Actual physical symptoms of withdrawal.  Like I was in a kind of detox.  It was so interesting that my symptoms just about disappeared during Care Group.  Why?

I think it is a combination of things.  First, I think Care Group was a distraction from my thoughts, from being with myself.  During Care Group I am focused on other people, on the conversation, on the study.  And that is okay.  Those are good things. I don’t think all distractions are bad.  And it might not even be fair to call it a distraction.  Care Group is an activity that is healthy.

Second, it could be that Care Group was a brief return to my “job”.  Like a drug addict getting a fix.  It was eerie how fast it happened that night.

What was going on inside me during those first few weeks?  I call it “feeling stressy” or “anxious”, but it is not just a typical kind of feeling stress on anxiety.  Instead it is the downward spiral of thoughts that gets worse and worse.  In the two weeks prior I had allowed too much self-focus can turn to wallowing. It’s good to know what’s going on in my life, but not healthy to be so self-focused.  Care Group, in part, turned my thoughts outward.

Care Group didn’t cure me.  The stress came right back the next day.  As the month of January went on, I had much time to reflect on my anxiety.  What I have learned is that I have situational anxiety.  Meaning, if I have nothing stressful going on in my life, I generally feel at peace.  But if I have stress going on, my body now reacts, and quickly.

The point, then, is learning how to deal with stress in a way that is faithful to God.  There are many ways to deal with stress.  Not all of them are faithful.  Our world is full of unhealthy and sometimes destructive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.  You and I know them and can list them.

For me, I would often distract myself with my phone.  Social media.  Games.  I started sabbatical, though, knowing I needed to bring my struggle with anxiety before God in a new way.   Looking back over the last few years, I can see an arc of progress, healing and hope.  But I also knew that things could be way better.

So on January 1st, I got rid of all the games, and I deactivated my Facebook account.  I had no sermon to write, no meetings, no emails, no visits, no phone calls, no office to get away to.  I had nothing distracting me.  For the first time in a long time, I was alone with myself, my family and God, and my stress.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have had a practice of personal devotions, studying scripture, and spending time in prayer.  So why did experience God in a new way during sabbatical?  What was new was that everything else I was using to distract myself from stress and anxiety was gone.  I was feeling it all the time, and that intensified the battle in my mind.  So I started reading and practicing new prayer disciplines.  Trying to sit more in God’s presence and listen.  A friend from church gave me the book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An anxious evangelical finds peace with God through contemplative prayer, which gave some very solid advice.  I read The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a world of Distraction, which was so helpful.

Then at on my first three-day personal retreat Twin Pines I had the first deep opportunity to learn and practice the presence of God in a more sustained way.  That retreat was at the end of the first month of sabbatical, and it was the turning point.  I could literally feel the stress subside as I turned the corner and drove onto Twin Pine’s campus.  I realized I should have been doing personal retreats with God for years.  I had talked about doing them, and I never did.

As a result, I can tell you that the second and third months of sabbatical were very different from the first.

Consider with me Philippians 4:6-7 where Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You read a verse like that and it is easy to think that anxiety is wrong.  Sinful.  Did Paul mean that true Christians won’t struggle with anxiety?  And if we do struggle with anxiety then are we bad followers of Jesus who don’t trust in him?  What Christian hasn’t had at least a little bit of anxiety, stress, worry?  Maybe the rare person?

For many years I had a mindset that Christians should not struggle with anxiety to the point of taking meds or seeing a counselor.  There is within Christian circles an unwritten expectation that we have to put on a smile and give a false expression that things are okay.  No doubt, as Christians we are called to rejoice, be joyful, glad.  But does that mean we should never feel anxiety?

There have been Christians through the ages that have committed the heresy of docetism, denying the humanity of Christ, saying that his perfection meant that that he didn’t feel pain, didn’t have stress or anxiety.  That is heresy.

Consider Hebrews 2:14-17 which teaches that Jesus “…shared in [our] humanity…” and that “he had to be made like [us], fully human in every way…” and that “[b]ecause he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I would submit to you that that was one reason Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane right before he was arrested was purposefully included in the Bible to show us in very clear terms that he too went through anxiety and stress.

Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t mean, therefore, that the presence of anxiety and stress and worry in your life means that you are sinful.  Jesus had it in his life too.  We certainly saw him frustrated with people and showing that emotion, and stress usually comes with frustration. Instead Philippians 4:6-7 is a wonderful teaching for those in the middle of anxiety, that there is hope, that we can do something about it.  We should take our concerns to the Lord, with thanksgiving, and seek him for peace.

Peter says something very similar in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast your cares on him, because he cares for you.”

When you lose a loved one, for example, you will still feel grief and anxiety. It doesn’t mean that you are not a true Christian or a spiritual person.  Take your situation to the Lord and seek peace in him.

Another wonderful teaching is James 1 which says, “consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds”.  Consider it joy?  I hate hard times.  I want them to stop.  Why would I ever consider them joy?  Well, James is saying, in other words, use your mind to control your emotions.  That is nearly identical to a therapeutic method called CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically it can be summarized as “Tell yourself the truth.”

That one is hard for me.  Anxiety is a battle in my mind.  Just ask Michelle; she’s needed to be a teller of truth in this area to me for most of our marriage, and certainly for our 15 years here at Faith Church. I have learned, though, that telling ourselves the truth is possible.

Psalm 46:10 is another classic reminder of how to tell ourselves the truth: “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist tells us that we can trust in God.  Sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and reflect on that.  In the midst of stress and anxiety, we tend to be very frantic and forgetful of reality.  But to be still means that we need to sit with God.  It takes time, it takes effort and it takes work to bestill before God and to tell ourselves the truth of who he is and what he has done.

In conclusion, let me say that I am not perfect.  I am not healed.

Sabbatical didn’t cure me.  That wasn’t the purpose of sabbatical.  But I do think I learned a lot.  In particular that I need to “be still and know that God is God” on a regular basis.  I need to get away and spend time with God.  My two personal retreats at Twin Pines were so good.  For years I said that I needed to do that, but never took it seriously.  Now I plan to take a personal retreat at Twin Pines every six months.

I also learned that I need to practice prayer disciplines of sitting before God daily, still, quiet, listening.  I certainly was a pastor who prayed.  But I need to become a pastor, a person, who is praying differently. For sabbatical I got rid of all social media and games on my phone to rid myself of those distractions.  I am committed to not bringing them back, and to replacing that time with more prayer, especially listening prayer.

Another helpful practice is to learn about anxiety. I started reading the book The End of Worry, and I encourage you to do the same.  Learn about stress and anxiety.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, exercise!  God made us to move!  And when we move, it has scientifically proven emotional benefits.

Finally, if you are feeling like you are losing the battle with anxiety and stress, please talk it over with your doctor, about the possibility of medicine as part of the solution.   Get in touch with professional counselors.  Some of you may need to change your view on the importance of medicine and counseling.  And, sit with our God.  Sit with Jesus.  Learn to rest in Him in a new way.

So, I am back…and there will be and there will be more difficult and stressful situations, as ministry is hard. But I feel excited about what God has taught me about this battle and I am excited to jump back in with these new habits and lessons He has graciously taught me. Thus I invite you to join me in addressing stress and anxiety in your life.

A Guided Lament you can use right now

21 Dec

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Do we lament when life is so rotten and dark that we have no where else to turn?  Yes.

Do we lament when there is still hope, but much work yet to be done?  Yes.

What we have seen this Advent as we’ve studied psalms of lament, is that lament is a faithful, clinging to God, an emotional plea asking him to intervene.

When we lament, we pray, “How long O Lord?” because we are waiting for him in the midst of our pain.

When we lament we are asking God to restore and revive us.

As you read this post, you may be at your wits’ end.  And you might not be.  No matter if you are going through a difficult time, or if things are relatively good, I encourage you to practice lament.  Include lament as a regular part of your prayer.  So what I’ve created below is a guide that you can use to help you lament.

Maybe even take the guide and use it to lament with your family or small group.  When we used this guide during our worship service at Faith Church, I read a section, then gave a few minutes for people to lament.  I invited our church family to lament out loud if the wanted.  Some did!  Most prayed quietly to themselves.

You’ll notice that the guided lament below starts broadly, lamenting for our world, and then gradually narrows, finishing with a lament for yourself.  Feel free to read over the brief description I’ve created ahead.  You might want to personalize, add to it, totally change it!  What I have listed below is just a guide.

So find a quiet place, away from distractions.  You might want to put your phone on airplane mode, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths.  Maybe read Psalm 126 again.  And then when you’re ready, address your lament to God.

Lament for our world

Lament for our world.  Lament for the refugees without a home, often scraping together an sparsee existence in a war-torn camp.  Lament for the families around the world who have lost loved ones because of terrorist attacks. Lament for fractures that run deep between people and nations in our world.

Lament for our country

Lament for our country.  Lament for the homeless who wonder how they’ll survive the winter.  Lament for damage that sexual predators have caused.  Lament for the pain caused by mass shootings.  Lament for communities devastated by flood and fire.

Lament for your community

Lament for your community.  Lament for the hungry coming to food banks for help.  Lament for the people living in motels.  Lament for broken families and how deeply it affects children. Lament for the many in our community who do not know Jesus.

Lament for your church

Lament for your church.  Lament for those in your church family who have been experiencing physical pain for many months and years.  Lament for the families that have dealt with a different kind of pain, the pain of loss and brokenness in its many forms.

Lament for your family

Lament for your family and all the difficulties you’re facing.

Lament for yourself

Lament for yourself.

When Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

5 Dec

Image result for thoughts and prayers are not enoughIn the morning, my family has a routine.  Our two kids still at home, one middle schooler, one elementary, get ready for school while we are watching the local news.  Then at 7am we switch over to CBS for their morning show.  A few days ago, we were surprised to hear that CBS fired one of their anchors, Charlie Rose, because of sexual misconduct.

Then a few days after that, we were watching the same program when they reported that NBC had just fired one of the Today Show anchors, Matt Lauer, for the same reason.

It seems like a new allegation and firing occurs every day.  That the truth is coming out and people are being held accountable is incredibly important and good.  A necessary purging, hopefully leading to deep change in our society.

But on top of the reports of sexual misconduct there have also been mass shootings pretty much every day.  In malls, schools, movie theaters, at concerts, in churches.

As we hear about these abusers and tragedies, we can’t help but think that the world is a dark place.  We can become despondent, confused.  How do we respond to darkness, to tragedy?  What should we think and feel?  What should we do?

One of the first responses to tragedy that we hear is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Praying for people is good thing.  You see it on Facebook, in the news, on the lips of politicians.  Prayer rising up out of the ashes of tragedy.

In that sense, “Thoughts and Prayers” is a good thing.

But after one of the recent shootings, the idea of “thoughts and prayers” was called into question. The shooting happened, and almost as soon as the news was reported, people started posting “thoughts and prayers” on Facebook.

“Las Vegas, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

But this time that sentiment, which is a good thing, was called into question.  Why?  Maybe people had reached a point where things had gotten so bad, that they had enough.  Maybe some people felt that “thoughts and prayers” was nice, but other action needed to be taken.  “Thoughts and prayers” has been called into question many times before, especially when “thoughts and prayers” are uttered by people who could potentially do something to stop or decrease the tragedies, but don’t.  And that makes people very upset.

I am going to agree with them today.  Other action does need to be taken.

Hear me out.  The critique I’ve heard says that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough because something additional needs to happen around gun laws.  Lives are so easily cut down by guns, thus  motivating the critique of “thoughts and prayers.”

I’m not going to talk about gun laws today.  Might be a topic for another time!

Today, though, I am going to agree with the critique of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m going to say that “thoughts and prayers” are good, but not enough.   There is another form of prayer that is so often missing.

That prayer is called lament.

Do you ever pray prayers of lament?  I rarely do.  I hardly even know what lament means.  And yet, lament is very much a common kind of prayer in the Bible. There is a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations, for goodness sake! Lament is especially prevalent in the Psalms.  One scholar I found claimed that more than 50% of the Psalms are lament.

And yet, I suspect many of us do not know about lament.  What is lament?

I suspect that we confuse lament with regret over a bad choice.  If something is lamentable, we mostly, I think, mean that we feel someone made a bad choice.  A error.  The words “lament” and “regret” are related no doubt, but they have different meanings.  Regret is when you are upset about a bad choice you made and you wish you could change it.  Lament is a bit different.  And I think the difference is why we so often have regrets, but we don’t lament.

Lament is defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow; mourning.”

We know about this when we mourn the loss of loved ones.  But lament takes things further.  And that is what we see in these psalms that we will study in Advent.

As I said earlier, when there is a tragedy, we often respond by saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  Prayer for those going through tragedy is good.  I think, though, that we need to add lament to our thoughts and prayers.

Lament is something that we don’t hear about in the face of national tragedy.  How is lament different from “thoughts and prayers”?

Andy Crouch in an article in Christianity Today says: “An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Lament confronts God with his seeming inaction and distance. This is a profound response of faith. Far from being unchristian, it is actually the prayer offered by Jesus himself on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

So this Advent at Faith Church we are going to learn about lament in the psalms.

In our next post, the first psalm of lament we’ll be studying is Psalm 80.

Practical suggestions to help you pray

5 Jun

Image result for prayerThis winter/spring I read an amazing book on prayer I wish I had come across years ago.  It is called Prayer: Conversing with God by a missionary named Rosalind Rinker.  She first published it in 1959, but it is so relevant.  Could have been written yesterday.  Easily one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read.

She talks about her early experiences on a missionary team, when they had staff prayer meetings:

“We were all together on our knees in the same room, each with love for the other, and each with a common purpose. But I began to realize we were each making a little speech to the Lord when our turn came. I know we were supposed to pray silently with the one who was praying audibly, but when we all covered the same ground — well, I found that I was trying to think how I could start my prayer with more “colorful” words. How I could put more “action” into my prayer, how I could make it sound more “spiritual,” and how I could take hold of the promises with more faith than the others. I wanted to word it differently from the persons who had prayed before me, and make it sound more important and interesting.”

That spoke to me.  I’ve had the same thoughts many times.  As if the prayer time was a showcase of spirituality.  Who could get the most “Amens” or “Yes, Lords”?  I’m guilty of those thoughts each month when I attend my local ministerium prayer meeting or my denominational district pastors’ prayer lunch.  There are buzzwords you can pray and you know you will get a reaction!  Start talking about revival in your prayer, that’s guaranteed to get you some “Amens!”.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker goes on to say:

“I used to choose a chair near the bookcases, so that when things got dull, I could quietly glance through the shelves and make a mental note, and often a penciled note, of the books I wanted to read.  Then there were the times I actually pulled out a book, and using my jacket around my shoulders as a shield, leafed through some of the books during the prayer meeting.  Sometimes I just plain fell asleep on my knees during those long sessions of prayer. After my turn was over, it wasn’t too hard to do.”

Yup.  Been there too.  When prayer becomes performance, who cares if we pay attention.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker says that her relationship with God, and thus her practice of prayer, was revolutionized when she discovered that God desires us to talk with him as a friend.  If you read through Exodus, you see the example of Moses and God and how they talked.  It is amazing.  Real friendship.  Real conversation. And in fact in Exodus 33:11, we read “God talked with Moses face to face, as a man talks with his friend.”  You read through the Psalms, and you see David is like that too.  You watch the example of Jesus, and it is the same.  Real conversation in prayer.  Real emotion.  Truth.  Honesty. That’s how we should talk with God.

But what about rote prayers?  If we are supposed to talk with God as a friend, does that mean it is wrong to read or repeat prayers?   Hear me clearly: recited prayers, memorized or read, are not wrong.  In fact, I think they can be very helpful, and we probably need to use them a lot more than we do.

A resource like the Book of Common Prayer is excellent, and I would suggest you all use it, as least from time to time.  There are also numerous BCP apps for your smart phone.  You might look into other prayer books too, and there are many biblical prayers that are fantastic.  There is nothing wrong, for example, with saying the Lord’s Prayer every day, every worship service, as long as your heart is in it!

Along with that kind of written prayer, I believe that conversational, unprepared, ad lib prayer is also very important.   This is where Rosalind Rinker’s book is so helpful.  She has loads of excellent practical suggestions for how to have great conversations with God.

From time to time I hear the argument that says “Well, isn’t prayer unnecessary, because God already knows our thoughts and our needs and everything about us?”  God does know all that.  But that’s pretty one-sided isn’t it?  A real relationship involves equal give and take, both friends communicating as much as possible. How do you think God would feel if we never or rarely make an effort to talk with him?

Therefore, God desires us to be persistent and consistent in prayer.

David says in Psalm 5 that he prays in the morning and watches for God to answer.  I encourage you to read that this week.

Then there is the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 about the widow.  Another one to read this week.  Parables can sometimes be hard to understand, but Luke tells us exactly what Jesus was trying to accomplish in that parable. In Luke 18:1 he writes “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

You know what that means?  Prayer takes energy, investment, and commitment.  When I took prayer class in college, I heard a phrase that shocked me “prayer is hard work.”

It seems wrong to say “prayer is hard work”.  But anytime you do anything consistently and persistently, it can feel like hard work.  So let’s not fool ourselves by saying that prayer is supposed to be simple or carefree or effortless.  A healthy practice of prayer, like any healthy relationship will take work.

Here’s the beautiful thing, though.  Hard work can become heavenly.  How many of you have had the experience of learning to love and enjoy hard work?  Whether it is straight up physical labor, exercising, practicing a sport or maybe a musical instrument, you can grow to enjoy it.  Say you are on a sports team.  After you practice and practice, and after you put in the hard work, how many have found it to become delightful?

Jesus’ disciples once asked him “Teach us pray.”  Great question. That’s what this sermon is all about.  We want to learn How to Pray.  So, what should you actually do?  What will this hard work of prayer look like?  And will you work at it, practice it, till it becomes delightful to be in such regular, wonderful conversation with God?

Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Plan to pray.  Carve out time.  It could mean cutting out something to make room for prayer.  I recently read an article where a guy made a commitment to wake up at 5am every day for a year.   Not necessarily to pray.  But it changed his life.  Would you wake up early to make time for prayer?  That might work for you.  Or would you cut out time on Facebook in order to have time to pray? In Matthew 6, right before he teaches the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus suggests that when we prayer, we get alone, be in secret, talk with God.  When I was a student at LBC, I used the private music listening booths in the library.
  2. Write down prayer requests.  Keep a journal.  I found a great free prayer app this week.  Prayer Mate.  It is available for both iPhones and Androids.
  3. Pray God’s word.  Write down this reference.  I preached it on Easter.  Ephesians 1:17-19.  Then the most famous prayer of all is the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew 6:9-13.  Memorize it.  Use it both as a word-for-word prayer, but also as a model for prayer.  Take note of the elements that Jesus includes in the Lord’s Prayer.  Praise, Confessing sins, Requests, Thanksgiving.  Then go to the Psalms.  We need a steady diet of the Psalms.
  4. Just start talking.  Know that God loves you, that he is your friend.  And just start talking to him.  Tell him everything.  Have a conversation with him exactly like you do with your friends.  In a group setting, can I challenge you to take a risky step and pray out loud.  Even if it is just one sentence.

Learning to how to pray is not going to happen by reading a blog post or book about prayer.  If you want to learn how to pray, it all boils down to just starting.  Make a practical goal for yourself this week.

My personal goal is prayer walks through the church.  I need to get started.  When I walk through the various rooms and hallways of the church building, it reminds me to pray for various ministries, groups and people in our church family.  In the lobby, I see our Summer Lunch Club volunteer sign-up table.  That reminds me to pray for all the volunteers and participants in a wonderful outreach the helps families in need.  Down the hall, I walk past the nursery and I think about all the families in our congregation raising young children.  I pray for them during what is an emotionally and physically exhausting period of life.  Around the corner, I see the offices of The Door Christian Fellowship, an amazing congregation that rents space from Faith Church.  We’ve deeply appreciated our partnership with The Door, and I pray that God blesses them.  And on and on the prayer goes.

How about you?  What will you to work on prayer?

Here’s my one big action step I’d like you to consider.  Get a trainer.  Be a trainer.  Yup, just as you would get a trainer for your physical health, get a spiritual trainer to learn how to pray.  Jesus once said, “Where 2 or 3 are together, there am I with them.”  When you get together with people to pray, he is there.  What an outstanding promise!  So who will train you to pray?  Or, who will you train?

Then add Rosalind Rinker’s book to this.  Each of you get the book, and read one chapter per week.  Get together for an hour per week, and take 30 minutes to review the chapter, then take 30 minutes to pray.

Get started.  With expectancy.

With any habit, it can take a while for it to feel more comfortable. But that is the nature of anything you want to grow in.  Practice.  Practice. Practice.

You can see such a difference in people that practice.  Whether it is a musical instrument or athletics.  There is such a connection to the spiritual life.  We are not just spirits.  We are bodies too, so how we use our bodies affects our spirit.  That’s why we need to practice spiritually.

Remember God’s grace.  You don’t have to pray perfectly.  God doesn’t care about that.  Just start talking with him. Share your thoughts with him, and do it consistently.  It might feel awkward, but push through.  That’s what practice is like.  And watch your conversations with God grow and flourish.

Do you want to learn how to pray?

2 Jun

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Do you know how to pray?

Before we talk about that important question, let me back up a bit.  It took me a while to find this image. To be honest, it almost always takes longer than I want to find the right image for my posts, or for the PowerPoint slides I make to illustrate my sermons.  I use Google Image Search, and often the results returned are not quite what I’m looking for.  So I have to refine the search multiple times and scroll through row after row of images.  Sometimes the images help me think about my blog posts or sermons in a new way, and I decide to change the sermon.  But more often, I tire of not finding the right image.

This time, though, I had one phrase I was looking for: “I don’t know how to pray.”  I have heard people express that sentiment or something like it many times over the years.  That’s why my sermon this coming Sunday is called “How to Pray”.

All I wanted was one picture that said “I don’t know how to pray” or “How do I pray?”  As you can see the one I found is close.  Close enough for me.  I was surprised because I thought “How to Pray” would be a popular topic, and thus result in loads of images to choose from.

What was interesting, though, was that another result filled the page with images.  That other result was the question “What to Pray?”  It seems that people are talking about “What to Pray” rather than “How to Pray.”  Or at least people are posting more images about “What to Pray” than they are posting images about “How to Pray.”  The exception is that there were a few images referring to how to pray in specific circumstances.  I would suggest that “How to Pray (in a specific situation)” is just a variation of “What to Pray”.  So I didn’t want to use a picture that described, for example, “How to pray for your kids”.

I also didn’t want an image that referred to “What to Pray”; I wanted one about “How to Pray.”  If you learn how to pray, it will be much, much easier to determine what to pray.  Furthermore, I suspect that people, based on the input I have received from our Faith Church family, want to learn how to pray.

This morning I was talking with someone who mentioned prayer times before extended family meals. One older member of the family always does the praying.  They are not rote prayers.  But this person seems to be able to speak with eloquence in his prayers.  So that person always prays.

Is that the answer to “How to pray?”  Eloquence?  Do you have to be a good public speaker in order to pray?

Or what about those rote prayers?  I mentioned rote prayers above because that is another way people answer “How to pray?”  A rote prayer is a memorized prayer that is recited.  For example, The Lord’s Prayer which starts “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”  There are mealtime prayers, bedtime prayers, and so on.  Among the various religious traditions there are loads of rote prayers. Are rote prayers the answer to “How to pray?”  I would say “Yes.”  But only partially.  I love The Book of Common Prayer, as it helps us pray in many situations.  You can read and inhabit one of its meaningful prayers for a host of common life situations.  I believe we that we would do well to memorize and recite, or at least read, these pre-written prayers often.  But I also believe there is more to prayer.  Much more.

How about you?  Do you feel you have a good handle on prayer?  Are you wondering “How to Pray”?

At Faith Church on Sunday we begin a summer teaching series called Spiritual Exercises, and if you don’t have a church family, we invite you to join us.  For the next few months we’re going to be talking about the following habits/disciplines/exercises which are vital for helping us live eternal life now.  How to:  pray, read the Bible, fast (deny yourself), talk about God, worship, be humble, depend on God, serve, give, make disciples, have solitude, love God with your mind.

We start off tomorrow trying to answer the question: How to pray?

Could prayer meetings and hand-raising be the worship that God really wants?

21 Feb

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Last week I mentioned the massive investment Christians have made in building-centered, staff/program-heavy, Sunday worship.  I wondered if God might evaluate us concluding, “I wish you would have done something different.” But how do we know what God would say?  Most of us involved in leading church worship do want to know God’s evaluation of our worship.  Is it possible to get such an evaluation?

At Faith Church, we’ve been studying the biblical letter of 1st Timothy, and the section we came to on Sunday brought us face to face with an evaluation of our worship.  Read 1 Timothy 2:1-8 to see for yourself.

In verse 3 where Paul says that “this is good and pleases God our savior.” What is good?  What pleases him?  To be a praying people!  “This” refers to verses 1-3 in which Paul is urging them to be a praying people.

You would be hard-pressed to use Scripture to support the investment most church makes in buildings, worship services, and staff (including pastors) that lead programs.  I am not saying that Scripture says those things are wrong and we should stop doing them.  Instead, we need to see Paul here teaching us that Christians demonstrate a commitment to being a praying people.  When it comes to worship, being a praying people is good and pleases God our Savior.

So what will it look like for us to increase our quantity of prayer?

An attempt to answer that question brings to mind the Jim Cymbala quote I put at the top of every Faith Church Wednesday evening prayer meeting guide:

“From this day on, the prayer meeting will be the barometer of our church.  What happens on Wednesday night will be the gauge by which we will judge success or failure because that will be the measure by which God blesses us.”

Think about that quote.  Is it possible that if we are prayer-less or don’t pray enough, we will not access the blessing and power that God offers us?  Is it possible that we emphasize Sunday morning worship too much, and Wednesday evening prayer not enough?

Paul says a few other things about prayer in this passage as well.  But I’d like to jump to his conclusion in verse 8, where he says, “Therefore I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”

Based on everything he has said to Timothy about prayer, Paul wants men everywhere to lift up hands in prayer.  Paul has made his case.  He has argued that prayer is vital. He spends time describing what prayer is, who to pray for, what to pray for, and now his conclusion?  Lift up your hands.

I have to admit that I got to that part and thought to myself, “Huh?  Really?  Why does he care about lifting up of hands?”  And to some degree I still think that.  In fact, I often think that hand-raising can be so contrived.  Like in this video:

Then I think, I’m at least a bit used to the idea of raising hands during the musical part of our worship service.  So why would Paul ask them to raise hands in prayer?  And why does he pinpoint the men?  Notice that in verse 9, which we’ll get to next week, he is going to talk specifically to the women.  If there he is clearly talking to the women, here in verse 8 we know he is specifically talking to the men.  I bring that up because sometimes “men” can be a generic way to speak of both genders.  “Peace to all men, or all mankind”.  Not here though.

Paul wants the men to lift up hands in prayer.

Men at Faith Church, including me, barely ever do this.  Is that cool, in God’s evaluation, or not cool? We have some people, including men, that lift up hands during singing.  Is that the same as what Paul is talking about?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Let’s approach it from another angle: why do people not lift their hands during prayer?  Should we? Investigate this with me a bit further.

Paul is possibly speaking figuratively here.  It could be that he just wants people to pray, and he is using the words “lift up holy hands” as way of describing prayer.  I grew up in a culture that taught Sunday School children to “bow your heads, fold your hands, and close your eyes”.  Some Christian speakers, before leading a congregation in prayer, say “Would you bow your heads with me?”  They don’t even use the word “prayer” but we all know what they mean.  They don’t really want people to physically bow, do they?  No, they want people to pray.  But the act of bowing has become synonymous with the act of praying.  “Bow your heads in prayer.”  Paul could easily be doing something similar here.  We’re not used to it because raising hands in prayer is not a part of our worship culture.  But it was for them.  Look through the Old Testament and raising hands in prayer is all over the place.  So it could just be cultural.

But let’s not just assume that Paul is speaking figuratively.  What if he does want Christians, and especially men, to raise their hands when they pray?

When I was a student at Bible college, we had chapel service every day in the morning.  At some point a group of students started lifting their hands during worship.  A few weeks went by, and one day the President at the time started off chapel with an announcement.  “There will be no raising of hands here.”  Why not?  Was the president of a Bible college going against the Bible?  It seems so, because here we have Paul specifically telling the men to raise up holy hands in prayer.

Frankly, I read this verse and I don’t like it.   I must admit within me, I rebel emotionally at the idea of raising hands.  Why, Paul, why?  It seems so stupid.  Really, Paul, no one cares whether or not I raise hands in prayer!

I think there are a few ways to respond to that.

First, I need to remember that God is not interested in rituals.  We read that many places as well.  He was regularly upset with the Israelites when they practiced the rituals of worship, especially the vast sacrificial system, but didn’t give their hearts in worship.  God says “I want your hearts, not sacrifices.”   Hand-raising could easily become a ritual.  I start praying and raise my hands just to check it off the list.  Or what if, at the end of each sermon when I normally close in prayer, I say, “OK, men, I’m going to start praying now, so up with your hands!”?  Our God is not into that kind of ritual.  He wants our hearts!

And that is where I think we would do well to examine why we do or do not raise hands.  If done with the right heart motivation, raising hands can show a submissiveness to God. Look at the physical difference between the posture of open hands raised and that of crossed arms.  Open vs. Closed.  Symbolically that says something.  Raised hands can be a plea to God for help, a humility before God.

Paul is not saying that you need to go to Tim Hawkins’ hand-raising class to learn how to do it right.  But we all should look at our inner attitude and motivation when we do raise our hands.  Examine your heart.  Why do you do this?  To draw attention to yourself?  Or because you think you have to?  Or because you are filled with gratitude to God, because you want to show humility and praise to God?

At Faith Church, we have a lot more of us that never raise hands, as compared to those that do.  We have some that want to raise their hands, but are shy.  Or we wonder what people will think if we raise our hands.  Yours truly is in this category.  When we’re singing songs, I have all kinds of thoughts going through my head.  I want to raise my hands, but I don’t want to be showy.  But then I think, maybe I should raise my hands because I’m the pastor.  No, I think, that’s not what God wants.  Not ritual, but heart.  Then I think, yeah, but remember how excited you get at Connor’s soccer games, and your hands are in the air a lot!  And you don’t care what anyone else in the crowd thinks of you.  Michelle is embarrassed at how loud you get.  Why can’t you do that during worship?  True, I tell myself, true.  My fear takes over though.  I rationalize: I don’t need to raise hands, do I?  I mean, God doesn’t really care, right?  He wants my heart, right?  And I usually don’t raise them.

And that is a peak into my heart and mind almost every Sunday.  It can feel like inner turmoil rather than the worshipful, thankful attitude I want to have during singing praise to God.

If that at all resonates with you, are you allowing fear to grip you and control you, more than your desire to lift up your hands as act of praise and prayer showing your submissiveness to God?  I can’t answer that for you.  It could be that a lot more of us do need to raise our hands.  But none of us should judge.  Whether we see people raising hands a lot and think they should less, or whether we don’t see people raising hands much and think they should more, let us not be a people of judging one another.  What is important is the heart!

Let us also, Christian brothers and sisters, be a people of prayer.  I love that during most Faith Church worship services, we have an open mic sharing and prayer time.  But I also love that we have Wednesday evening 7-8pm focused on prayer. There are many other ways and places that we can pray.  Sunday School classes, small groups, Bible studies, one on one, before meals or before bed time.  I encourage all those things.

But let me ask, family of Faith Church: what is your schedule like on Wednesday at 7pm?  Seriously.  Will you consider making Wednesday evening prayer meeting a priority?  We won’t force you to pray out loud.  We don’t require long, eloquent prayers.  We have a short Bible study, right now we’re going through the book of Joshua, and then we pray.  We have a time for requests, we pray through the bulletin prayer list, we pray for any requests that are submitted via the connection cards, email, or otherwise, and then we start praying for our church and ministry.  I find the time usually flies by!  Will you join us so that we can become more the praying people that God wants us to be?